Blog: Corporate Liability

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July 23, 2020

Rethinking MSIs: Binding Brands to Create Change

Posted by Christie Miedema, Campaign and Outreach Coordinator, Clean Clothes Campaign

When the COVID19 pandemic hit, garment brands and retailers around the world cancelled their orders. What was to them a logical risk and cost reducing measure, meant destitution for millions of garment workers around the world. Public outcry over corporate behavior led a range of brands to quickly mend their ways. However, the question remains why public outcry was even needed. Brands have spent years promoting programs they claim guarantee protection for their workers. So why couldn’t they rely on those?

In the 1970s and 1980s garment brands started to outsource production abroad. This was a step that seemed to have only advantages: lower prices, lax labor regulation, less risk. Reduced to a mere client of garment factories elsewhere in the world, garment brands and retailers could wash their hands of any responsibility for workers – or so they thought.

Enter the rules, but set and monitored by whom?


Following a series of exposés in the 1990s documenting horrific conditions in sweatshops, brands took action to curate codes of conduct and imposed them on supplier factories. This progressed to the emergence of a social auditing industry to oversee suppliers’ compliance, as well as social compliance initiatives to synchronize and oversee these codes, often in the form of voluntary, multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs). This all prompts the question: given the tools brands have created to regulate working conditions in the garment industry, why are workers being left to suffer during the pandemic?

The answer lies within the mechanism of these voluntary MSIs. Behind the façade of battling exploitation, MSIs have become little more than a fig leaf for fashion; a tool enabling brands to dictate the rules, while shielding the industry against responsibility and criticism, rather than protecting the workers.

MSIs, which come in different shades of brand-friendliness and ambition, have certainly played a role in normalizing ideas of supply chain responsibility, as well as facilitating discussions between brands, unions, NGOs and other stakeholders. However, as a recent report on supply chain transparency published by the Transparency Pledge Coalition has shown, many MSIs are no longer taking the lead in moving the more unwilling brands towards stronger politics, but are instead surpassed left and right by members who voluntarily go beyond what the MSIs prescribe. Only one MSI was willing to take the challenge of the Transparency Pledge coalition to actually take the lead and make transparency a membership requirement. Another recent report shows that a “soft measure” such as due diligence reporting, remains wanting. And although MSIs’ complaint mechanisms still remain useful avenues for workers and labor rights activists to appeal to if a member brand is unresponsive to resolve a case of labor rights violations, which continues to be tried again and again, the same limitations apply: the outcome is not binding.

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July 16, 2020

Rethinking Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives Blog Series

Posted by Tyler Giannini and Amelia Evans

Ten years ago, our Clinic was asked to figure out a way to evaluate whether multi-stakeholder initiatives—or MSIs for short—were helping to advance human rights or whether in fact they were doing precisely the opposite.

MSIs are voluntary governance efforts that bring together corporations, civil society, academics, and in some cases governments and rights holders themselves to (privately) govern thorny human rights issues, and by 2010, they had proliferated in the business and human rights field.

The allure was (and still is) obvious. If we bring the right players together, they can learn from each other and solve a given problem by setting up a democratic institution that can prevent future abuses and sanction violators, and governments will not have to pass hard laws and unnecessary regulations. The potential flaws were (and remain) just as obvious—the power imbalances amongst the players are acute and asking industry to voluntarily give up power and self-regulate is a fool’s errand that puts the fox in charge of the chicken coop.

Thus, we set out to look at which way the institutions had gone—had they filled their promise or had the inherent flaws gotten the better of them? Little to no systematic work on the question had been done at the time, and what started as a one-semester project turned into a non-profit—MSI Integrity—and a decade of work.

Today, MSI integrity is publishing its new report, entitled ”Not Fit for Purpose,” which compiles its experience and insights over the last decade. The report explores cross-cutting trends and lessons learned about MSIs, as a field, from a human rights perspective. MSI Integrity’s assessment is clear:

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July 16, 2020

New way forward for corporations necessary, says MSI Integrity report


Clinic-incubated org documents systemic failure of business and human rights tool

Screenshot of the banner on the MSI Integrity website which says, "Rethinking the Role of MSIs" on the left, "Not Fit-for-Purpose: The Grand Experiment of Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives in Corporate Accountability, Human Rights, and Global Governance," in the middle, and "Reimagining the Corporation," on the right.
A new website, Not Fit-For-Purpose, explores the insights contained in the report.

Three decades ago, a grand experiment in human rights and global governance began to unfold. In the absence of rigorous government regulation of transnational corporations, civil society organizations began stepping into this regulatory void by collaborating with industry representatives to create voluntary codes of conduct and oversight mechanisms.

These multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) now cover almost every major industry, from certifying food or consumer products as “sustainable,” “fair,” or “ethical,” to establishing good practices for internet companies in respect of privacy and freedom of expression online.

The new report from MSI Integrity, Not Fit-For-Purpose, is the culmination of a decade of research and analysis into international standard-setting MSIs. The report finds that, while MSIs can play important roles for engaging corporations, they are not effective tools to ensure that they respect human rights, to hold them accountable for abuse, or to provide rights holders with access to remedy for abuses. 

“Over time, MSIs [multi-stakeholder initiatives] have become captured and dominated by corporations. So, while they may not have been designed to fail, I think they were destined to fail,” MSI Integrity Executive Director Amelia Evans LLM’11 said recently in a Guardian article about the report.

The report is a call to rethink the role of MSIs, and voluntary regulation more broadly, and for more effective regulation and enforcement of corporations at the local, national and international levels. The report also calls on the human rights community to challenge and change the corporate form itself, which excludes rights holders, workers, and communities from business decisions that impact them more than anyone else.

International Human Rights Clinic students and staff contributed research, writing, and editing, including: Alicia Brudney JD’19, Yanbing Chu JD’19, Sabrina Singh JD’20, Praggya Surana LLM’19, Rebecca Tweedie JD’21, and Vincent Yang JD’20, and Tyler Giannini, HRP and Clinic Co-Director and Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Malene Alleyne LLM’17, MSI Integrity’s Research Coordinator and Clinic alum, was instrumental in the report’s production and dissemination.

MSI Integrity was incubated at the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School from 2010-2013 by Evans and Tyler Giannini, who is active on the board and still frequently collaborates with Evans on clinical projects. The organization began after NGOs and government officials — concerned with understanding whether MSIs were working — expressed the need for an independent organization to focus on measuring the effectiveness of MSIs.

Want to learn more about MSIs and the report? See below for commentary, events, and more.

Visit the report website: msi-integrity.org/not-fit-for-purpose/

Register for our July 30 discussion on worker/community-centered human rights interventions and lessons from the failed experiment of MSIs, with workers and their allies from WSR Network, Equal Exchange and Obran: https://bit.ly/38XdplF   

Stay tuned for a joint blog series with MSI Integrity, “Rethinking Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives,” that will be launching soon.

The text above draws from the “Not Fit-For-Purpose” MSI Integrity report launch website.

October 17, 2011

Supreme Court Grants Cert in Kiobel, Deciding to Hear Corporate ATS Case

Posted by Tyler Giannini and Susan Farbstein

The Supreme Court announced today that it will hear arguments in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., an Alien Tort Statute (ATS) case that squarely presents the question of whether corporate liability exists under the statute.  Since June, when the plaintiffs in Kiobel filed their petition for certiorari, there have been significant developments around the question of corporate ATS liability as two courts of appeals rejected the Kiobel position.  In taking the case, the Supreme Court should resolve this split in the lower courts.  The hearing will be during the 2011-2012 term, and a decision can be expected by June 2012.  Kiobel involves allegations against Royal Dutch/Shell for its complicity in egregious human rights violations, such as extrajudicial killings, in the mid-1990s in Nigeria.  Of note, the Court combined argument in Kiobel with Mohamad v. Rajoub, which poses the question of whether corporations may be held liable under the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA).

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